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Editorial: Interior's endless charade on Indian trust

What happens when Indian people want to know why they aren't getting the most for the use of their land? They are repeatedly told there is no mismanagement, that there is no retaliation, that the law doesn't work that way, or even worse, they are ignored altogether.

Now what if a non-Indian family, armed with expensive lawyers and lobbyists, wants the best price for their oil and gas rights? The Interior Department bends over backwards to make sure they get a sweetheart deal and a photo opportunity at the White House.

It sounds implausible but that's what exactly what happened in the case of the powerful Collier family and their mineral rights in the Florida Everglades. In an explosive 51-page report, Interior Inspector General Earl E. Devaney found that senior political appointees, aided by a couple of government attorneys, were all too willing to concoct their own law even it meant offering $120 million for drilling rights that were worth far, far less.

Not only was the offer about $80 million more than amounts suggested by more experienced career employees, it is possible that the Colliers had already been paid for them, a private appraisal foundation concluded. But the Interior folks in charge of the deal didn't care, all they wanted to do was "close the deal," in the words of one of the solicitors involved.

And despite the fact that President George W. Bush's brother is governor of Florida, and that the people of Florida oppose drilling in the Everglades, Devaney said that politics didn't play a role in the lopsided deal. No, this "charade" spanned Republican and Democrat administrations, the report concluded.

"If the department�s appraisers had been allowed to perform their job at the outset, if senior department officials had listened as well to their own employees as they did to [the Colliers], and if the department�s legal advisors had spent the same level of effort on a thorough, comprehensive analysis as they seemingly did to obscure and secrete the issue of value, this long, sophisticated charade, which has consumed incalculable hours of time and money on both sides, might have been avoided altogether," the report, released on Wednesday, stated.

Harsh words but sadly, that's the state of affairs over at the Interior Department, the so-called trustee for Indian Country. For if political appointees and their attorneys applied as much gusto to resolving the Indian trust debacle as they did to this charade, Indian people would be a lot richer.

Unfortunately, that's not going to happen any time soon. The Bush administration won't agree to settle the Cobell lawsuit for the billions it is worth because, in the famous last words of former deputy secretary J. Steven Griles, that would be like paying individual Indians twice.

We can't have that now can we? That would be wrong.

Luckily, Devaney can bring some clarity to the situation just as he did with the Everglades fiasco. His investigators have looked into the underpayment of Navajo allottees who received far less for use of their land than their non-Indian counterparts. The Office of Inspector General has interviewed some key people -- including a former senior Interior official named Kevin Gambrell who was among the first to raise the issue before being fired -- but has not issued a report.

Devaney is probably the only one who can get some answers because if you ask Special Trustee Ross Swimmer, he'll tell you Indian landowners hasn't received the highest amount for the use of their land because ... well, because! And yet he still would to charge them fees for all those "trust" services.

Only until someone steps in will we learn the true extent of the oldest charade in the United States -- the fleecing of Indian people.

Inspector General Report:
Text | PDF

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -